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Joe “LI Joe” Ciaramelli walked out onto the player stage during the Evo 2022 Street Fighter V Top 8 in between sets like he has been doing all weekend. As the host for this year’s event, he wore a button-down shirt and a pair of nice shoes to go alongside the mic he used to get the crowd hyped. Although he walked out onto that stage many times over the weekend, there was one time in particular that he added another accessory to his outfit. An out-of-place pink backpack. Not many fans in the 12,000-seat Michelob ULTRA Arena picked up on it, but the backpack signified something special. It was the same backpack that LI Joe wore the very first time he walked up on stage six years ago as a competitor.

LI Joe’s Evo 2016 run kicked off the SFV era at Evo with wonder, hope and hype. Despite the game not having the greatest launch while trying to follow in the footsteps of Street Fighter 4, the game’s tournament scene debut was insane.

Six years later, in potentially the game’s final Evo tournament, that same wonder, hope and hype returned. Over the years, SFV has been a mainstay in the Evo lineup; and while other games have come and gone, there is no denying that SFV’s legacy has been one hell of a rollercoaster ride from beginning to end.

Round 1

SFV was released on February 16, 2016. Eight years since the last Street Fighter title came out. Although many loved SF4, it lived a good life and it was just its time. With everyone looking toward the future, many were excited about what changes would await them.

“If we are being realistic, I thought SFV [was] a better-made game than SF4,” Red Bull’s Adel ‘Big Bird’ Anouche said. “I do think SF4 was a more fun game with more broken stuff but SFV is a more simple game and it’s very challenging to play.”

Initial impressions were so high that the hype surrounding its inevitable Evo 2016 debut was higher than any other game in history. SFV set a record that year, with over 5000 entries in what is still the largest in-person fighting game tournament ever. The hype even attracted ESPN to broadcast the finals live on cable television. It finally appeared that the FGC hit the mainstream.

“2016 was easily the peak of SFV,” said Red Bull’s resident Street Fighter legend Daigo Umehara. “Looking back at Evo 2016 it had the highest entries and biggest population for hype.”

As the tournament kicked off, storylines and hype moments were flying from every direction as everyone wanted to see who the first world champion would be. But the most memorable storyline wasn’t about the eventual winner or the best matches — it was an underdog story. Just a guy who loved playing fighting games in New York, LI Joe put the hopes of not only NY, but the entire nation on his back. As long as the Street Fighter franchise has seen play, it’s been dominated by Japan; the rest of the world has been playing catch up the whole time. Every so often, a new challenger from the USA rises to the occasion; in 2016 it was Joe.

“I remember thinking to myself and saying it out loud to people, I might not be the best in the room but I can beat anybody in two games,” LI Joe said. “I know I wasn’t a better player than [Ryota “Kazunoko” Inoue], I know I wasn’t better than [Justin Wong] or Daigo or any person in the world but it didn’t even matter because I know I can get two games.”

Joe was ranked 29th in the world at the time and was not on many people’s radars to make it into the Top 8. But as he continued to make upset after upset, he found himself in the final eight players at Evo 2016. And this year was the first in events history to hold finals at the 12,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center, later renamed the Michelob ULTRA Arena. LI Joe was living in the moment the best he could.

“I was actually really uncomfortable in the green room because it was all players from Asia.” LI Joe said. “I didn’t know how they felt about me being there but I was honored to be there, these are the guys that I looked up to since I was 15-16 years old.”

As Joe walked out of the green room and onto the stage for his top 8 match, signature pink backpack and all, he embraced the fans and the “USA” chants as he really was the lone USA representative left in the event. The entire arena was behind him but there is something deeper that people also remember about that Top 8.

Right after he won his match to get into Top 8 on that Saturday night, news started to spread rapidly around Joe’s circle of family and friends that he was going to be playing in a giant arena for SFV Top 8 on that Sunday. Many coworkers and family were perplexed that this game could be this big of a deal but here he was about to be on ESPN. Joe’s father knew he had to be there. So Joe’s best friend John pulled some strings without telling Joe and flew out Joe’s father to see his son play live.

This Evo moment was special in that, despite the obvious search for the world’s best, LI Joe produced the game’s best moment of the year. A true underdog story so strong that even when Joe bowed out in fifth place, the largest cheers were for him and his surprise meeting with his father is still the highlight for many so many years later.

“To be able to share that moment and share it with me and then obviously share it with the FGC and the world, it was something I’m never going to forget,” Joe said. “I still have the hand-written bracket on a plaque on my wall.”

Li Joe’s life changed overnight. As a now micro-celebrity, LI Joe used his new clout to help grow a career in content creating and streaming and even him being the host of Evo 2022 was thanks to that.

“I guess, opportunities I’m doing now like hosting Evo this year, I don’t know if that would have been the same if I didn’t do that.”

2016 was undoubtedly a fantastic start to SFV at Evo but according to many including Joe, the greatest moment in SFV’s history was just a year away.

Punk vs Tokido

Remember what was said about the USA playing catchup with Japan? In 2017, that whole script flipped. As the new hope for NA, Victor “Punk” Woodley was a monster in 2017 and the clear favorite to win EVO that year as he was coming off a dominating performance at the ELeague SFV invitational.

“That year, Punk was unbeatable; he was continuously winning and made it through pools and finals without losing a match,” Daigo said. “We were talking back then on-site, saying, ‘who’s going to beat him?’”

With Top 8 kicked off, Punk easily moved into the winner’s side of Grand Finals after 3-0’ing both Hiromiki “Itabashi Zangief” Kumada and Kazunoko . But on the loser’s side of the top 8 bracket, a Street Fighter legend was making a run. Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi was knocked down to the losers bracket by Punk himself before Top 8. As the ninth seed, Tokido was expected to whiff Top 8 but managed to squeak in. He did not let his run end there.

He took down Ryan “Filipino Champ” Ramirez” and Du “NuckleDu” Dang back to back and then trounced the two players Punk dispatched in the winner’s side. All of a sudden, Grand Finals was a rematch from Day 2; despite Tokido having won an Evo title before, he was the big underdog. The USA hadn’t won an Evo title in Street Fighter in seven years leading up to this. But Tokido snapped like he was the embodiment of Akuma himself. Many thought the match would be an afterthought but then Tokido took Game 1. And after Punk attempted to shut down the hype with a Game 2 win, Tokido took Game 3, then he took Game 4 to rest the bracket. Punk didn’t win another game.

“To see Tokido pick someone’s gameplay apart like that and just have an answer to absolutely everything was just astonishing,” LI Joe said.

In a surreal moment in the FGC, Tokido slew the beast known as Punk and delivered an all-time quote that is still said today. “Fighting games are something so great.”

“The quote is what you are going to see in the hallways at Evo that’s what kind of made his win so special.” Big Bird said.

But for SFV, things were about to change; both for better and worse.

Down but not out

With back-to-back great years for SFV at Evo, the game took a dip in popularity and quality. Seasons 2 and 3 marked a downtime in the scene as the game was in a really bad state with the developers not doing much to help.

“Season two and three were a little rough as far as balancing,” LI Joe said. “Just weird questioning as far as why they would do XYZ to specific characters and just the lack of listening to the fans.”

2018 also marked the arrival of new games to the top of the Evo lineup. Dragon Ball FighterZ finally dethroned SFV as the most popular game at Evo that year and would mark an end to SFV’s time at the top of the FGC. In 2019, the game would suffer another dip in entrants with yet another new game taking the first place spot, this time Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. But while the game state was not its best and the game not at it’s peak in popularity, tournament quality didn’t change much.

“I mean obviously, [the general] player base could have changed because the feeling of the game being new, some people dropping off to play other games, but I don’t think the tournaments in general changed for better or for worse.” LI Joe said.

2019 was the mark of a new era in SFV. At Evo 2019, there were no players from either the 2016 and 2017 top 8’s that made it to the Top 8 in this tournament. Instead, new faces popped up with Big Bird and Derek “iDom” Ruffin making their big Evo breakout tournaments. For Big Bird, he thought 2019 was the true peak of SFV.

“Covid kind of robbed us, the game is in such a good place right now.” Big Bird said.

Over the past couple of years, many of the problems the game faced were cleaned up. Many in the community finally believed Capcom to have the best interests of the players at heart. More defensive options were introduced through the V-shift mechanic and the development team was overhauled.

Through fun character releases and transparency, the game has reinvented itself and tried to override the once negative image the title once had. And then the Pandemic happened. It really was feast or famine for many fighting game titles during the era of online play with many new games coming out over the past couple of years. Evo was canceled in 2020 and 2021.

But just like other communities, SF weathered the storm heading into 2022, looking to keep the wheels turning on their now six-year-old game. But in the first quarter of the year, perception of SF changed once more. It has been rumored for months that the next installment of the SF franchise was coming.

In late February, a teaser trailer popped up for Street Fighter 6, and then just a couple of weeks later, SFV was announced for the first in-person Evo in three years; a bittersweet moment for the scene, as this tournament would likely be SFV’s last. However, some truly felt that the scene saved its best Evo for last.

“I think the biggest point in SFV is right now,” LI Joe said. “It’s had years to marinate as a game, now everything is flushed out, and the players are also way better than they were.

“The game has evolved, people have evolved, the players have evolved.”

Evo 2022

Three years removed from his Capcom Cup 2019 win, iDom entered Evo 2022 as the number one seed in the tournament after establishing himself as the best player in the world. He also agreed that the peak for the game is now.

“This is where, like, all the best competition is, everyone’s fully immersed in the game, everyone’s good,” iDom said. “The game is also in a perfect spot and this Evo is going to be so good because it’s probably one of those Evo’s where its too hard to call because everyone’s so good.”

Outside of Evo, three major tournament series started to really take off over the past couple of years with Combo Breaker, CEO and Capcom Cup. iDom had won the most recent versions of all of them. With these big events rivaling Evo and with Evo 2022 being the smallest number of entries in SFV to date, many questioned if not only SFV was important, but Evo as a whole. But to the game’s top players, they shook off the silly notion.

“We were actually just talking about this,” LI Joe said. “I do think the tournament does hold a lot of weight; it’s still the number one tournament when it comes to international play when it comes to getting the world involved.”

Evo 2022 could not have been a better culmination of SFV’s history, especially when looking at the Top 8. It was an all-Japan winners side, consisting of two prodigies; Tsunehiro “gachikun” Kanamori and Masaki “Kawano” Kawano, as well as two legends in Daigo and Tokido. For Daigo, it was special to see him in Top 8 of a SF game at Evo as he hasn’t done that in over a decade. And of course, Tokido in Top 8 was a must-see for the game’s legacy. Japan’s dominance has been a focal point of SFV’s time at Evo, and seeing that some things haven’t changed gave SFV’s potential last appearance on the big stage a familiar feeling.

On the loser’s side, the highlight was definitely iDom. The tournament’s first seed was one of only two American players in a sea of eastern powerhouses; but what made Idom’s tournament run notable to this point was that he lost in the first round of top 192. A major upset on Day 2 forced the favorite into a grueling losers run path. But for him, it’s what he wanted.

“Going to losers I felt kinda helped me,” iDom said. “I felt like I had a momentum swing going for me and after every game the momentum was just gonna keep carrying over and over.”

iDom rattled off six elimination wins in a row just to reach Top 8. The pressure was on iDom. No American SF Evo champion since 2007 and there hasn’t even been an Evo champion that has started from Losers since Olivier “Luffy” Hay in 2013. But for iDom, he was locked in. After beating Europe’s “Master Crimson,” iDom got matched up with the SF legend himself, Daigo. iDom had never defeated Daigo before, but came into the match prepared after some advice from one of the best.

“Funny enough, before I played Daigo, I actually messaged Punk for advice,” iDom said. “He actually gave me a lot of good advice on how to beat Daigo and his advice worked; I always say it’s good to ask players for advice because they are very knowledgeable about the game.

In an all-time classic, iDom went the distance against Daigo and after a last game, last round situation, iDom made it eight in a row to move onto Losers Semis to fight Tokido. Ironically, iDom did not struggle in the slightest, 3-0’ing Tokido to continue his historic losers run and made it to Losers Finals to fight Gachikun. iDom could not be stopped as his warpath raged through Gachikun and all of a sudden, iDom found himself in the Grand Finals.

“I felt like I was kind of in a prime position because [the Japanese players] kind of had to figure out how I wanted to play, so I felt like I was in a really good spot to just keep my momentum going.”

That first Grand Final set was all iDom — thousands of people watching in person and at home were witnessing one of the greatest performances not just in SFV history, not just in Evo history, but in FGC history. iDom reset the bracket, made it 12 straight sets from losers, and put himself just one more best of five away from capturing his first Evo title. But Kawano, the prodigy he was, made the adjustments to fight back. Just like his main character of choice, Kolin, he put iDom on ice. Up to this point, iDom was an unstoppable force, but even though Kawano was finally cracked, he was the event’s unmovable object.

The Daigo set was a classic, but the second set in Grand Finals was legendary. A five Game thriller with both players making career-defining reads, it was only fitting for the tournament to come down to the last hit, last round. With the entire venue on its feet, time stood still as the NA hopeful held their breaths for the last neutral exchange. And in one swift motion, Kawano knocked the air out the room as he put an end to iDom’s tournament at the very last moment. Kawano, not iDom, was the SFV Evo champion for perhaps the final time.

Hearts were broken, but only because the Top 8 was so memorable. Despite not having the most entries or the most compelling storylines coming into the event, iDom put on a show that rivaled both Tokido and LI Joe when it comes to the best moments in SFV history.

“It feels pretty good to get to an Evo Grand Final,” iDom said. “I wish I could go back and you know, hopefully [Kawano] didn’t jump my command grab; but it is what it is and hopefully next year I can get the win.”

Speaking of looking ahead, Street Fighter 6 is most likely going to take SFV’s place at Evo next year after SFV’s six-year run. To legends like Daigo, he thinks SFV did a fine job at continuing the franchise’s legacy but said that its impact could have been better.

“I would say that SFV is fourth in the impact ranking, but I’m hoping [for] SF6 to be on par with SF2,” Daigo said.

Evo has evolved over the years to feature other games at the top of the FGC food chain not named Street Fighter. However, despite SFV not being the main game over the years at Evo, and Evo not being the main tournament for SFV at times, there is no doubt that SF will always call Evo home.

“Evo has always been the pinnacle of what we do as fighting game players,” Joe said. “We may not all know each other personally, but we all know why we’re here; we all share the same sentiment that we are here because we all have this respect, this love, and passion.”

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